What started as a side gig has now turned into a full-time business for local barista Matthew Bussard, owner of Azul Coffee Bar, who recently moved his coffee bar into Uptown Hearth, a bakery in downtown Columbia Falls.
Bussard first started the coffee bar two years ago as a mobile cart to offer specialty coffee and espresso at events such as weddings and parties.
While the coffee bar began as a mobile operation, Bussard said he became more interested in parking it somewhere to build more of a “brick-and-mortar” business.
A transplant from Ohio, Bussard got his start in the coffee business working at Starbucks while he went to school. He attended Ohio State, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics with a minor in business and environmental economics.
He was unsure of what he wanted to study, but was able to find his path and let it happen “organically” as his interest for coffee grew.
Working for Starbucks, Bussard appreciated the level of customer service being offered, noting he thought it was the highest available at the corporate level. A focus on being mindful of the customer experience is something he has incorporated into his own business, he said.
Whereas the Starbucks coffee chain now uses more “automatic” methods for making coffee, Bussard said he prefers hand-crafted specialty coffees and espressos.
His focus is not just on creating a good cup of coffee, he said, but to create a great “coffee experience.”
For him, that stems from using more manual methods and equipment. His simple coffee, served out of a pump pot, is always a French press or a pour-over, he says, and for the espressos and specialty drinks he uses high-end, quality equipment, including a La Marzocco Linea espresso machine and a Mazzer coffee grinder.
Each component is part of what’s known as the “4 M’s of Espresso,” as the word for each starts with the letter “M” in Italian — Macinazione (grind), Miscela (blend), Macchina (machine) and Mano (hand).
“That hand-crafted aspect of coffee is still important for baristas to know,” Bussard said. “... We are the final hand to touch the coffee after a very long supply chain and the many other hands that have touched this coffee in order to bring it here. The hand-crafted, ethically sourced, and an honest and real coffee experience is what we’re after.”
Also unique to his style is the scientific approach, he said.
“Ultimately what I think I do that people might not see around here, I weigh everything,” Bussard said. “I weigh all my shots so that I can replicate it.”
Bussard said brewing coffee is not unlike baking in the way that it can often be formulaic.
“I always tell people ‘It’s not rocket science, but it is science,’” he said.
Bussard moved to the Flathead Valley 10 years ago, drawn by the great outdoors and the sense of community.
He continued his career in the coffee industry at Montana Coffee Traders, where he worked for eight years.
In 2012 he became a part of the local ‘80s alternative cover band, the New Wave Time Trippers, playing bass guitar, and the band now makes regular appearances at the Great Northern Bar in Whitefish.
Two years ago Bussard began his mobile coffee shop, continuing his search to “crack the egg that is the mystery of the perfect cup of coffee,” he said.
With help from his friend Jack Minnich, owner of Arborvitae Custom Woodworks in Whitefish, he built a hand-crafted, custom-made coffee cart he could load into a truck. Working events was a side job in addition to his position at Montana Coffee Traders.
Bussard had known Terri and Andy Feury, owners of Uptown Hearth, since he first moved to Montana. About a year ago, Feury remodeled the building where her previous business, The Finn Biscuit, had been located.
The Finn Biscuit had occupied a small space in the back, and Feury had rented out the front to other small businesses. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic on Nucleus Avenue, Bussard said, and small businesses often struggled.
Last year Feury began the build-out of the space and later reopened it as Uptown Hearth. In November she contacted Bussard about doing regular pop-up appearances in the store. It became a weekly thing for Bussard to bring his cart in every Friday and then pack it out at the end of the day.
“It was going well, well enough that we became interested in expanding the menu and the days of operation,” Bussard said. “It lined up in a way that I felt comfortable leaving Montana Coffee Traders.”
Bussard left Coffee Traders about a month ago and moved into the space at Uptown Hearth earlier this month. He now uses the Montana Coffee Traders Buffalo Blend, a blend of Ethiopia Yirgacheffe and Sumatra, for most of his specialty drinks — offering a light roast with a juicy finish, he said.
He makes it a priority to source his ingredients locally and said he enjoys the continued relationship of working with a local roaster.
Azul functions as a separate business. He pays rent for the space and the coffee menu is separate from the food and bakery items. But there’s also a sense of collaboration, he added.
“The interesting thing about Uptown Hearth, you’ve got a baker, a chef and a barista, and we’re all coming at this from our own angle … It matches nicely,” he said, adding “The goal is, people come in looking for great food and they also get a great coffee experience, or people come in for coffee and they can also get a great food experience,”
“We want to stay here for a while. Our goal is to appeal to and serve the local market,” Bussard said. “We know the tourists come and go, they help this place in a number of ways. But they [the locals] are the ones who are going to be here on a rainy November on a Wednesday.”
Azul Coffee Bar is located inside Uptown Hearth at 619 Nucleus avenue in Columbia Falls. For more information visit http://www.azulcoffeebar.com/. Bussard can be reached at 871-4686 or by email at email@example.com.
Reporter Alyssa Gray may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.